Do you want to test your tolerance for being inadvertently touched, jostled, and crowded by random strangers?
Go to Disneyland in mid-July.
On the “aversion-to-touch” scale, my kid is in the middle. He’ll allow himself to be touched, many times even requests it—a tickle, a squeeze, a wrestle—but it’s got to be on his terms. He has to know it’s coming.
But when you’re winding your way through a massive sea of people—many carrying oversize backpacks and multiple bags bulging with unwieldy souvenirs; others pushing strollers while wrangling toddlers who insist on managing their own larger-than-toddler balloons or stuffed Pixar characters; not to mention the few patrons walking in zig-zag obliviousness while gnawing on large turkey legs or cotton candy—it’s just impossible to keep from being touched.
“There’s nothing more toxic, more deadly than a human child. A single touch could kill you!” – Mr. Waternoose, Monsters Inc.
There is no “fast pass” around the summer swarms at Disney theme parks. As a family, we are not early risers—at least not the talk-to-others-in-public-and-ride-roller-coasters type of early risers—so getting into the parks before the biggest crowds was not a realistic goal. We went in the afternoons and evenings. Along with half the universe.
As we walked through the throngs of determined-to-be-happy Disney-enthusiasts in the parks last week, I could visualize the Don’t Touch Me bubble my son was working to create around himself.
We watched our kid carefully, since we knew if he got too agitated, he might hit someone who accidentally bumped him. He didn’t, but whenever he got nudged or brushed-up against, he would hit or rub himself at the spot where he was touched.
“Twenty-three Nineteen! We have a Twenty-three Nineteen!!”
My husband had to keep reminding me not to touch our son, since my instinct was to take him by the arm or hand to help steer him around any log jam we encountered. My touching, of course, made things worse, which left me to walk in this odd posture: one arm reaching out across my son—but not quite touching—placing my body between his and others.
One might wonder why we would take a kid so stressed in crowded public spaces to the Crowd-iest Place on Earth. Sometimes I wonder that myself.
Despite the potential for sensory overload, my kid loves this place. About an hour into our seven-hour drive to Anaheim, he began verbally requesting “Disneyland” every minute or so, in his version of Are we there yet?!? He craves the excitement of roller coasters and beams in the midst the Disney and Pixar movies he’s memorized.
Disneyland also strengthens his verbal abilities. This trip, he rarely used the choice-books I created with photos of the rides at Disneyland and California Adventure Park (so much for that idea), but found ways to tell us verbally which rides he hoped to tackle. He can easily identify most of his favorite roller coasters (Space Mountain tops that list); but he also pulled out a few creative associations.
- He asked us for “Wild Train.” I’m fairly certain he got this phrase from a YouTube video he’s watched a bazillion times featuring a non-Disney roller coaster, but we’re also certain he was describing Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which is now and forever “Wild Train” to us.
- He started scripting from The Nightmare Before Christmas to request (we think) the Haunted Mansion. He probably remembered the ride was decorated with characters from that film during the Halloween season.
- My boy asked for “Elevator” once too, but we were in the wrong park at the time, and since he never asked again, his chicken-parents declined to remind him later that he could still ride The Tower of Terror. Next time.
This boy loves roller coasters, and he is willing, up to a point, to endure the crowds at Disneyland to get to them. My son soldiered through the masses, twirling his beads and verbally repeating the mantra of whichever ride was next on his list…Space Mountain ….Space Mountain… Space Mountain…
He could’ve handled the crowds better if the wait times in the summer weren’t so torturous. He doesn’t quite understand why we have to wait 45 minutes, an hour, or more, in between rides. His confusion is heightened because of a change in Disneyland’s disability access service.
Due to my son’s anxiety and self-injurious behavior that can be sparked by crowds, noise, and incomprehensible wait times, Disneyland provides an accommodation that allows him to access the rides separately from the cramped, regular lines. It’s very helpful and we could not do Disney without it.
They’ve recently tightened up the rules, though, since a few jerks were revealed to be taking advantage of the system. The old system was more lax about wait times. Although his special pass to use the “wheelchair” entrance at the rides was never intended to allow him to cut in line, the ride attendants rarely made him wait for long. It was easier for them to let him ride rather than to keep track of the amount of time he spent waiting—and jumping, twirling, and verbally stimming—right next to their station.
He’s come to expect this treatment at Disney, but in the revamped system, he is no longer given access to this separate entrance. Instead, he’s given a return time that reflects the current wait time for that ride. He can kill time in another area of the park and come back anytime after the return time. This accommodation still works to allow my son access to the rides—he would not be safe or comfortable if stuck in the middle of those crowded longer-than-20-minute queues.
But, when the crowds are that thick, the wait times that long, and your son’s primary coping mechanism is to repeat Cars Ride, Cars Ride, Cars Ride until his butt is finally in that “Cars Ride” seat—this can be challenging. His stress in the crowds increases the longer the wait, and he can’t easily be deterred from his target ride by treats, parades, characters, fireworks, or even other rides. The long waits make the crowded spaces even more difficult to bear.
Sometimes, the irritation of being near too many people could not be assuaged by the rides he came there to enjoy. One afternoon, he seemed particularly pent up about the crowds, the heat, and the long waits. While waiting to get on his new favorite “Cars Ride,” we decided to distract him with Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, which had a shorter wait. We didn’t really think that through, considering that the fast-swinging motion of the two-person tractor cart would force him to lean into [touch!] his dad around every turn. Whee! [touch] Argh!…Whee! [touch] Argh!…
Despite moments like these, we’ll always come to Disneyland, albeit next time at a less crowded time of year. Why do we bother, when it can be difficult even with the accommodations Disney provides? Because despite the inescapable crowds, the agonizing waits, and the guarantee of sensory overload, when my son gets on his favorite rides, his joy makes it all worth it.
Laughter is ten times more powerful than screams…